Every Sunday, Ana González wears one of her best suits to attend Las Acacias, the largest evangelical Christian church in Caracas.
And each week, four days later, she laces up combat boots and tucks her hair into an olive green military cap to report for duty with Venezuela’s army reserves, a foot soldier in President Hugo Chávez’s military.
“I believe in Jesus Christ because he was a revolutionary,” said González, 47. “I follow Chávez because I believe in the things Chávez is doing. He is also a revolutionary.”
…”A lot of people have left Las Acacias because the pastor identifies with the opposition,” González said. “Many Chavistas have said, ‘We’re not coming here anymore.’ ”
But González and her husband stayed, if only to reach more Christians for Chávez.
…In Chávez’s fight to bring Venezuelans into the fold of his “socialist revolution,” churches have become important battlegrounds. Many pastors here say they avoid talking politics, but admit that the issues riveting the nation don’t stop at the church doors. The question has become not whether to follow Christ, but whether to also follow Chávez.
The president routinely invokes religion. Last year, he celebrated his reelection by reading a biblical passage describing the communal lifestyles of first-century Christians. He has also frequently mentioned that his revolution will create a “new man,” an echo of a theme of the Apostle Paul’s New Testament Epistles.
…In 2002, when the president won back control of the government after a violent two-day coup, [Evang. Pastor] Pérez accepted an invitation to appear on state-run television to revel in what he called the “divine intervention” that restored a “free Venezuela.”
“There is more freedom now for Christians than ever before,” Pérez said after dancing with his congregation for more than two hours during a Sunday morning service…
…[But for a pastor who “identifies with the opposition”] Olson’s church [Las Acacias], which boasts nearly 5,000 members, can’t avoid the spotlight. Already, Las Acacias is under surveillance, Olson said, its Web site monitored and church leaders’ phones tapped.
The church is preparing for a time when the government shuts its doors. Already, members have divided themselves into groups based on where they live. If the government shutters the church, each group will have its own pastor and support staff. Las Acacias will be able to survive, Olson said.
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